A mere 19 days after James Reimer left the ice, yet to return, it’s clear the Toronto Maple Leafs could be in serious distress without their No. 1 goaltender.
Backup Jonas Gustavsson and third-stringer Ben Scrivens have both struggled to pick up where Reimer left off after six solid games, and the latest in a long line of problems with Leafs netminders seems all too familiar given Toronto’s woes in goal the past three years.
Coming off 7-0 and 5-1 losses in their past two games, the Leafs held a team meeting on Wednesday to regroup heading into their game Thursday against the St. Louis Blues.
While their teammates attempted to take the focus off the goalies, all eyes will likely be on the starter given their recent turns in goal.
Another bad game and it could be time for Leafs general manager Brian Burke to find someone else to shoulder the load.
“This is an opportunity,” Scrivens said. “I’m trying to make the most of it right now. Going to try not to think so much and get back to playing my game. I’m not sure what the exact cause is for some of the goals that have gone in.”
“Of course you want to try to stop all of the shots, but I mean sometimes it’s like that,” Gustavsson said. “You just have to keep going. You’re going to make mistakes during the season.”
Those mistakes, however, are beginning to add up. After an excellent outing in Columbus last Thursday, Scrivens was shelled against the Boston Bruins on Saturday and pulled 35 minutes in with the score 5-0.
Three nights later, Gustavsson got the same treatment, lasting only 37 minutes against the Florida Panthers before being yanked with his team down 3-0.
While there were defensive breakdowns in front of them – especially against Boston – this season has continued a longstanding trend of Leafs goalies failing to make nearly enough saves.
This season, Toronto’s three netminders have a combined .888 save percentage, which is third worst in the league and well off the league average of .910.
In fact, since coach Ron Wilson arrived in 2008, the nine goaltenders that have played under him have stopped the lowest percentage of shots in the league (.893), which is miles behind the likes of Boston (.925) and Florida (.918).
If as the old axiom goes, for every good coach there’s a good goalie, there’s an argument to be made to the opposite effect for Wilson, as his teams have received so little support in net that it’s been difficult to win many games.
Reimer is the only Leafs goaltender to have posted a better than league average save percentage (.920) in that time frame, while the likes of Justin Pogge (.844), Curtis Joseph (.869) and Vesa Toskala (.886) have pulled the overall number way down.
Scrivens, with only three appearances, is hardly to blame for the trend.
Gustavsson, however, has now appeared in 74 games – roughly 30 per cent of the games Wilson has coached in Toronto – and statistically seems to be trending down.
So with Reimer’s return date from concussion-like symptoms unknown, another ugly outing by Gustavsson on Thursday could force Burke to hunt for a capable goaltender.
The short list of potential fill-in candidates isn’t exactly full of world beaters:
- Evgeni Nabokov is being used as trade bait by the New York Islanders, who are rumoured to want a second-round pick for his rights
- A free agent, Marty Turco is currently team-less and working out with a junior team
- Panthers backup Scott Clemmensen has been passed on the depth chart by rookie Jacob Markstrom in Florida
- And Michael Leighton has been playing well in the minors in the Philadelphia Flyers system after falling out of favour there
All four of the above have had success in the past and could offer a short-term solution while Reimer recovers.
Doing nothing, however, can’t be an option if this keeps up, as the Leafs have seen year after year since the 2004-05 lockout what happens when you struggle in goal.
You don’t make the playoffs. And often, you don’t come close.